Summer's Night Sky

    Summer is a great time for stargazing because it's warm throughout the night and doesn't it rain as often as other seasons. There's quite a lot to see even if you don't have a telescope or binoculars.

      The "crown jewel" of the night sky is still Mars. The red planet simply dominates everything but the full moon! You just can't miss Mars, although it does not rise very high in the south, so you need a good view of the southern horizon. Unfortunately, since Mars doesn't get very high in the sky, haze and light pollution will make viewing details with binoculars, and especially telescopes, much more of a challenge.

     The only other planet worth looking at is dazzling Venus, which shows up before dawn in the eastern sky. You'll really have to be an early rise for this one!

   Back to the nighttime sky, there are a lot of bright stars to gaze at. The Big Dipper is high in the northern sky. Most folks can pick out this well known asterism. We call the Big Dipper an asterism, because it is not a true constellation. An asterism is a familiar group of stars which belongs to part of a recognized constellation. In this case, the Big Dipper is part of the constellation Ursa Major, the greater bear.

      You can use the handle stars in the dipper to find another bright star, though if you look directly overhead you're likely to find it on your own. Arcturus, the brightest star in the constellation Bootes the herdsman. Bootes' stars make up the shape of a kite. An old astronomical saying is "use the handle of the Big Dipper to arc to Arcturus." If you follow the arc of the handle, it will take you right to Arcturus.

    The summer triangle parade of stars is in the eastern sky. Bright bluish Vega is the highest of the three bright stars which make up the triangle. Vega is the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, the lyre, an ancient musical instrument.

    Below and to the right of Vega, is Altair, the bright star in the constellation Aquila the eagle. Deneb is the third star of the triangle and resides below and to the left of Vega (not as far down as Altair.) Deneb is supposed to be a swan.

      If you look straight down from Vega, you should see a small cluster of stars known as Delphinus the dolphin. The cluster is small, you could easily cover it up with your hand held at arm's length, but it is easy to imagine it as a dolphin leaping out of the celestial sea!

      The Milky Way, beautiful but difficult to see unless you have dark skies, runs from north to south, swinging down through the summer triangle in the east.

      In the southern sky, where the Milky Way meets the horizon lurks Scorpius the scorpion. The brightest star in this constellation is the reddish Antares which is the "heart" of the scorpion. Scorpius' claws spread out in front of him to the right, and his curving tail, stinger intact, is behind him. This is one of the constellations which really look like what it is said to be, however you will need dark skies to see enough of the dimmer stars.

     Click here to go to a map of the summer skies. Happy Stargazing!

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